Outdoors
In the mountains near Skagway are Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes. On a knob above the latter lake, Peter C. Kern built a "Swiss chalet" said to be the only one in Alaska at that time. It is unknown when he built what was described as a "magnificent" building, but it was soon after the Klondike Gold Rush.
Southeast History: Skagway's Castle Kern 071713 OUTDOORS 1 Laine Welch In the mountains near Skagway are Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes. On a knob above the latter lake, Peter C. Kern built a "Swiss chalet" said to be the only one in Alaska at that time. It is unknown when he built what was described as a "magnificent" building, but it was soon after the Klondike Gold Rush.

Photo Courtesy Of Pat Roppel

A photo of "Castle Kern" being constructed.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Story last updated at 7/18/2013 - 1:11 pm

Southeast History: Skagway's Castle Kern

In the mountains near Skagway are Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes. On a knob above the latter lake, Peter C. Kern built a "Swiss chalet" said to be the only one in Alaska at that time. It is unknown when he built what was described as a "magnificent" building, but it was soon after the Klondike Gold Rush.

Because of Kern and his chalet, during early years Upper Dewey Lake was called Kern Lake. After he left Alaska in 1910, the name did not survive. Nor did his "castle."

Who was Dewey? None of my sources tell us, however, the creek that drains both lakes was known as Dewey Creek as early as 1902. Perhaps someone wanted to commemorate Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey. After the 1898 Spanish-American War, he was hailed as a national hero. Sometime around 1950, the U.S. Geological Survey applied "Dewey" to the two lakes on federal maps.

Peter Kern arrived in Skagway at the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush. He came to El Paso, Texas in 1881 when he was in his early 20s. The town was becoming a railroad hub, and he decided to open a jewelry store. In the boom town, with brothels, saloons and gambling joints, he began to make money. He purchased a great deal of land around El Paso including the northwest mesa of sandy hills.

The boom did not last and in the crash of 1893 his jewelry business failed. To add to his troubles his wife and their daughter left him. He placed his property in the hands of trustees for protection of his creditors. He was said to be penniless.

Hearing about the Klondike Gold Rush, he headed north. Remembering his success in a boom town, he opened another jewelry store in Skagway. As an avid sportsman, Kern and others fished Lower Dewey Lake, about 800 feet in elevation above Skagway. Several newspapers quote Kern as saying he made large catches of a "dwarf variety of Dolly Varden." He planned to introduce grayling and rainbow trout into one or both of the lakes. There is no record that he did so.

In the days when the only transportation to mountainous areas was by backpacks or maybe burros, Kern built his so-called castle. Today there is a six-mile trail to this lake from Skagway with an elevation gain of 3,100 feet via switchbacks. Imagine the number of times the workers had to climb the trail carrying supplies. In addition, the newspapers of the times mentioned "magnificent furnishings."

In the accompanying photograph, we see that the "castle" was a four-story log cabin. The workmen stayed in the canvas tents. On the left side is a wide, suspended, log bridge, perhaps to haul supplies as the building became higher and higher. A man is on the lower level in a dress hat: perhaps Kern? Although this building does not look "magnificent" in today's eyes, it probably seemed so to people who felt anything that big on a mountainside, obviously costing money, was extravagant. It had no economic purpose at a time when most people were struggling to make ends meet.

In November 1910, Kern decided to return to El Paso. He sold the castle to Harriett Pullen of Pullen House in Skagway. She told the "Seattle Times" that she planned to build a number of cabins and operate a first class "tourist castle" on the mountain. Kern sold his jewelry business to H. D. Kirmse and left late in November never to return to Alaska. Reportedly he took $50,000 in cash with him.

Mrs. Pullen did not realize her dream. In late July 1912, the historic landmark burned in a forest fire that consumed hundreds of trees and damaged the forest along Lynn Canal. The fire started east of Skagway and at first didn't cause concern. Then a strong wind fanned the fire, and flames carried to the hills looking over Skagway. Fear for the safety of Castle Kern and residents outside of town began to spread. A fire brigade was called and with its efforts, the town was not damaged. But Castle Kern was gone.

Things were looking up in El Paso. Kern found his debts had been cleared through sale of his property except for the sandy mesa. It had appreciated in value. He decided to develop a subdivision in 1914 naming it Kern Place, a name that survives today. Some news articles state that Kern built another Castle Kern, however, the El Paso newspaper talks of his grandiose plans that never materialized.

His troubles were not over. His daughter Madeline returned in 1924 and learned of the subdivision, with streets named for her. She forced her father into bankruptcy trying to make Kern Place community property. Although the claim was found frivolous, the lawyer fees depleted Kern's money.

In 1932, he moved to the Home for Aged Masons in Arlington, Texas. On a morning walk in 1937, crossing the railroad tracks, he did not hear the approaching train. He was 80.

Kern would have undoubtedly approved that his wish for more sport fishing in the Dewey lakes came to be. Eastern brook trout were planted in Lower Dewey Lake, described as a "barren lake" meaning it had no fish. What happened to the dwarf Dolly Varden? This started in either 1917 or 1918, then again fry or fingerlings were planted in 1920, 1926, 1927, 1931, and 1932. At first the USFS described the stock as being "too heavily fished." After the 1932 plants, the USFS said the lake was well stocked and this was not needed. "Natural reproduction is sufficient." However, fishing was uncontrolled for years, and only a small population survived.

In 1952, the Territorial Department of Fish introduced 250 adult rainbow trout. No evidence was found in 1963. Again in 1968, fry were introduced after an unsuccessful attempt to chemically eradicate the brook trout.

As for Kern's Upper Dewey Lake, in 1921 eastern brook fingerlings were backpacked up the mountain and released. In 1927, the program was evaluated a being successful with only one transplant.

Today, a trail heads out of downtown Skagway to the lower lake. The Upper Dewey Lake trail starts at a fork near the lower lake. There is no "Castle Kern," but there is a USFS three-sided shelter and an A-frame perched on the northwest end of the lake.

Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at patroppel@hotmail.com.


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